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A gangster novel outguns the cliches

Special to The Times

A Novel

Tom Epperson

Five Star Publications: 378 pp., $25.95

The Kind One

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“THE Kind One” is a gangster novel. Set in the 1930s in Los Angeles, screenwriter Tom Epperson’s debut book is a circus of cliches, so much so that a summary of the plot risks sounding more like a sneering parody of the genre than a rendering of an actual story. And yet it is also much more.

Danny Landon, the protagonist, has suffered a knock to the noggin that has stripped him of his memory: He doesn’t know who he is and he can’t remember anything about his past. He’s told he’s a ruthless mobster and killer -- “Two-Gun Danny” -- who once mowed down a shipload of people during a dramatic heist-at-sea, and that’s why he’s in a favored position in the gang. But he doesn’t feel like that kind of person. His boss, Bud Seitz (nicknamed “The Kind One” by one of his old and now, of course, dead girlfriends), is the typical gangland boss. Someone crosses Seitz, he’s dead. But -- so the story always goes -- times, they’re a-changing, and the old ways just won’t do anymore; Seitz is losing power, giving the author ample opportunities for gangster meetings, threats and violence.

Seitz has a moll, of course, a sad, suffering nice girl in a bad situation. Abused as a child, she ran away from her Midwestern home and wandered the country, using her female charms to get by. She met Seitz at the Los Angeles night club where she was performing as a singer. She’s no singer now, though. She’s a drunk (like most sad gangster molls) and she wants to escape, but she’s trapped by Seitz, who has her bird-dogged by his henchmen and chaperoned by none other than Landon, who learns of her secret past and, of course, falls in love with her.

While Landon bumbles along in an amnesiac haze searching Oedipus-like for his true identity, the plot alternates between gangster scenes of violence and stupidity and Landon’s home life at a small complex of bungalows. Among Danny’s neighbors are a nice (but inscrutable) Englishman named Dulwich and 11-year-old Sophie, whose mother is far more concerned with her sex life than with her daughter. But Mom’s boyfriends regularly sexually abuse Sophie. So Landon has two heroines to rescue.

Although it may not be hard to imitate a genre’s cliches (they are, after all, what generate the genres), it’s difficult and exceedingly rare to transcend the cliches and produce a work that can appeal to readers who are not necessarily aficionados of the given genre. Epperson has managed the uncommon feat of writing a genre novel that can hold its own alongside (if not best) other works considered more literary. On every page, the language is crisp and fresh, the details sharp and keenly observed, the dialogue real, never forced. When Epperson elevates his prose to the lyrical, he reads like a streamlined Joseph Conrad:

As Landon drives through the desert, he tells us, “Soon it got hotter than I thought it possible to get. Heat mirages lay like puddles of water on the shimmering road. The landscape was unearthly and blasted-looking. What vegetation there was seemed primitive and savage: thorny cacti and twisted little trees with clumps of spiky leaves. You couldn’t imagine even bugs or lizards living out here. Off in the molten-blue distance, mountain ranges jutted up like giant slag heaps. It was hard to see how the pioneers in the olden days had ever made it.”

And the main characters, though based on recognizable crime novel prototypes, are larger than their origins: Their passions and habits, their pasts and their quirks, are unique, so much so that the tight plot becomes secondary to the characters themselves.

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Epperson is the screenwriter (with Billy Bob Thornton) of such thrillers as “One False Move,” “The Gift” and “A Family Thing,” so it’s no surprise that “The Kind One” reads as if he wrote with a movie in mind. To be sure, it could be a fine film, but the novel itself is of the highest caliber in its genre and makes the leap into literature, as do the best works in all genres.

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Eric Miles Williamson is the author of the novels “Two Up” and “East Bay Grease,” and the forthcoming nonfiction book, “Oakland, Jack London, and Me.” He teaches English in the Rio Grande Valley at the University of Texas-Pan American.


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